US Immigration

Asian-Americans entering politics to rise up against Donald Trump’s ‘xenophobic’ administration

Once majority Republican voters, have soured on the party over the decades – especially since Trump’s recent proposals to limit family-based immigration

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 5:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 9:40pm

Dozens of Asian-Americans are running for federal office in the US as Democratic candidates, deliberately playing up their Asian roots in a battle against President Donald Trump, who they say demonises the immigrants who make America great.

The candidates’ unabashed celebration of their foreign ties is notable for an ethnic group that has had to prove its “American-ness”, no matter how long families have been in the country.

“I think partly it is a reaction to the current administration which has, in its policies and statements, sent out a very xenophobic message,” said Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who is campaigning for a third term in the US House of Representatives.

“It’s also a recognition that what makes America great is immigration and the American dream; it’s what people all over the world come to seek,” he said.

Christine Chen, executive director of the non-partisan Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, or APIAVote, says 2018 could be a watershed year for civic participation.

When [Trump] wants to ‘Make America Great Again’, he wants a few less people that look like us around
Suneel Gupta, Michigan Democratic candidate

Asians, who make up 6 per cent of the US population, have traditionally lagged in voting because of language and cultural barriers, as well as a lack of outreach from political parties, Chen said.

In the 2016 presidential election, for example, about 49 per cent of eligible Asian voters cast ballots. That was less than the 65 per cent for whites and 60 per cent for blacks, but slightly higher than the 48 per cent figure for Latinos.

It’s hard to say definitively how many Asian Pacific Americans are running for Congress; the Associated Press identified at least 80 candidates of both parties, including incumbents. More than a dozen candidates are Republicans, but all the rest are Democrats.

There are currently 18 Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders in Congress; three are in the Senate.

“What’s fascinating with the congressional candidates is they’re coming from everywhere,” Chen said, ticking off races in Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey and Texas.

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“What we’re hoping is with all these people running, and if they win, that will continue to change how people perceive the community,” she added.

Among the candidates are nearly three dozen Asian-Pacific-Americans seeking to overturn Republican seats in the US House as part of a broader Democratic surge to take control of the chamber. Some of them have already been eliminated, but others have advanced.

As the son of immigrants myself, it felt very personal, it felt very un-American
Democrat hopeful David Min on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’

Aftab Pureval, the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, for example, won the Democratic primary in Ohio’s First Congressional District on Tuesday. He will face incumbent Republican Representative Steve Chabot in November.

For Suneel Gupta, a former Groupon executive, it is precisely because of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies that he’s running as a Democrat for an open seat outside Detroit, Michigan.

“It is literally the moment that I realised my daughter’s first president is going to be Donald Trump, and knowing that when he wants to ‘Make America Great Again’, he wants a few less people that look like us around,” Gupta said.

Not all Asian-Americans lean left. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt said that the Republican Party also has compelling and diverse candidates such as Young Kim, a Korean-American who is on the June 5 California primary ballot as a Republican.

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“When my family came to this country, we came legally,” she says in a 30-second campaign ad. “And not because we wanted handouts, but because we wanted the opportunity America provided to succeed on our own.”

Political preferences vary among Asian ethnic groups. Overall, though, more favour Democrats over Republicans, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside, and director of AAPI Data, which provides demographic information on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

About 40 per cent of Asian American voters are undecided or unaffiliated.

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Asians once leaned Republican, with 55 per cent choosing George H.W. Bush over Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. But by 2012, Barack Obama had received nearly 75 per cent of their vote and in 2016, Asian Pacific Americans overwhelmingly went for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Ramakrishnan says Asian American voters were turned off by the Republican Party and Trump’s rhetoric over immigration. Indeed, more than 70 per cent of Asian adults in the US are born abroad, according to the Pew Research Centre.

Asian-American voters soured further on the Republican Party after recent proposals to limit family-based immigration, a legal method used heavily by Chinese, Indians and other Asians to come to America. 

They also expressed horror over Trump’s executive orders limiting travel from Muslim-majority countries, which they said reminded them of the Japanese-American incarceration camps during the second world war.

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“As the son of immigrants myself, it felt very personal, it felt very un-American,” said David Min, a law professor in Southern California who is among several Democrats challenging Republican Representative Mimi Walters.

The stereotype of Asian-Americans as “foreigners” was recently revived publicly when US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used the Japanese word “konnichiwa” to greet a fourth-generation American of Japanese descent.

Democratic Representative Colleen Hanabusa had just relayed the story of her grandfathers, who were incarcerated along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, their loyalty questioned by the American government.

“I was stunned,” said Hanabusa, who is running for governor of Hawaii, of Zinke’s comment. “The first thought that came to my mind is, this is why Japanese-Americans were interned.”

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Paediatrician Mai Khanh Tran, who is seeking an open seat held by retiring Representative Ed Royce in Southern California’s Orange County, expresses dismay that under Trump, the country that took her in as a nine-year-old refugee from Vietnam is closing its borders.

“This is a country that is welcoming and loving and kind and compassionate, and it has to continue for others,” she said.

In New Jersey, the party is banking on national security expert Andy Kim to beat Republican Representative Tom MacArthur, a Trump supporter who helped revive the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

The district has a tiny Asian population, but Kim says he’s running on his lifelong ties to a district that Obama carried twice. Kim, whose parents emigrated from Korea, is a long-time federal employee who served in Afghanistan under General David Petraeus.

“What I want people to be thinking about is that I’m the kid next door who’s doing everything I can to fight for this land that gave my family everything,” Kim said.